Michigan Traditional Arts


History of MTAP

         Ongoing research and presentation of Michigan traditional arts began in 1975 with a statewide survey and 1976 exhibition of historical folk art at the Michigan State University Museum. In 1977, two curators (C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell) were appointed to the Michigan State University Museum to continue research, collection development, exhibition, and educational activities pertaining to the everyday and traditional cultural heritage of Michigan. In that same year, they joined with the Michigan Cooperative Extension Service (now called MSU Extension) to create statewide educational programming and general public services in the area of Michigan’s traditional cultural resources. One of the major initiatives coming out of this partnership was FOLKPATTERNS, originally funded in 1978 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which encouraged youth engagement in documenting and presenting their own traditions as well as the traditions of their families and communities. While the program ended in the early 2000s due to both the national and state reorganization of Extension, curriculum resources are still available online at the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and many county fairs still have annual “FOLKPATTERNS” judging categories.

         With the addition of another folklife specialist funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program (MTAP) became the primary agency in Michigan for statewide traditional arts activities. Since the mid-1980s MTAP staff have met regularly with staff of state, regional, and national folk arts programs and have represented the State of Michigan in formal meetings with the leaders of the folk and traditional arts in other states, including meetings held annually at the American Folklore Society and the two-day Folk Arts Peers meetings held bi-annually at the National Association of State Arts Agencies. In 2016, MTAP staff coordinated the two-day Folk Arts Peers meeting held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. MTAP staff have played key roles in state and national arts policy development, evaluation studies, and professional development and training opportunities for both traditional artists and program administrators. In 1987 MTAP staff worked with other program colleagues to produce the National Endowment for the Arts-funded Folk Arts In Education Handbook which has served as an important resource across the country for community-based folk arts in education programs. The Handbook was updated in 2008 and presented in both physical and digital form.

         For over 30 years, the MTAP coordinated a statewide folklife festival. A first foray into festival production occurred in 1984 as part of the 4-H Exploration Days on the MSU campus but the first major festival was the 1985 “Michigan: Whose Story?” festival held at the MSU Kellogg Center. In 1987, MTAP collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution to present Michigan’s folk artists at the Festival of American Folklife. That same year, MTAP brought the Smithsonian’s Michigan program to Michigan with the launching of the Festival of Michigan Folklife. During the twelve-year run of that festval, MTAP conducted field research to identify over 1200 folk artists for presentation. In 1999, MTAP forged a new partnership with the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Washington D.C., and the City of East Lansing, to co-produce the National Folk Festival 1999-2001. Running from 2002-2017, MTAP continued the festival tradition with the launching of the Great Lakes Folk Festival held in downtown East Lansing. In 2018, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MSU Office of Outreach and Engagement, the MSU Native American Institute, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and in-kind support of the Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing, the City of Lansing, and community cultural workers, MATP staff mounted what would become the last folklife festival, renamed for that year as the Lansing Eastside Folklife Festival.

         From 1986-2019, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the MSU Museum maintained a partnership to strengthen the support of traditional arts and artists in the state. On January 1, 2020, to strengthen the programs of MTAP and to provide opportunities for new university partners, the Michigan Traditional Arts Program moved its research, exhibition, and education programs to a new home at the MSU Residential College of Arts and Humanities (RCAH) and moved its community-engaged digital humanities programs to Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences. These programs are carried out in partnership with the MSU Office of Outreach and Engagement. The collections generated by the Michigan Traditional Arts Program are housed in the MSU Museum and the MSU Library.

 Community-engaged digital humanities projects on Michigan’s traditional cultural assets

         In the mid-1990s, MTAP staff members teamed with staff of the Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences (Matrix) to create new digital humanities programs that would engage individuals in learning about and documenting everyday life and traditional culture. Michigan Voices program, funded by the Michigan Humanities Council, was one of the first of what has become long-term collaborations.

         Three digital humanities projects engage community scholars to document aspects of the state’s traditional material cultural heritage and then to contribute that documentation to a freely-accessible digital archive hosted by Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences. The Michigan Stained Glass Census focuses on collecting information about the origins, styles, and subject matter of architectural stained glass. The Michigan Quilt Project documents quilts and quilt artists. The Michigan Quilt Project was a springboard for the development of the Quilt Index, a repository of images and stories of over 80,000 quilts and quilt artists from public and private collections around the world. The Michigan Barn and Farmstead Survey engages community members in surveying barns and farmsteads.  

         The Michigan Traditional Arts Program, Oral History Association, American Folklife Center/Library of Congress, the American Folklore Society, and the Nunn Center for Oral History/University of Kentucky partnered with Matrix to create the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Oral History in a Digital Age, a comprehensive resource for conducting, preserving, and using oral history interviews.

Programs recognizing individual folk and traditional artists for their excellence in teaching and mastery of their art

         Many of the state folk and traditional arts programs in the United States coordinate statewide traditional artist apprenticeship programs and recognition programs for outstanding traditional artists. In 1985 the MTAP started the Michigan Heritage Awards and, in 1988, the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

         The National Endowment for the Arts annually bestows one of its most prestigious awards—the National Heritage Fellowship—on a small group of folk and traditional arts and advocate. MTAP staff have been behind the nomination of many Michiganders for this award.